Northwest 23rd Avenue will soon be home to a swanky Vietnamese street food spot serving frog legs, small plates, wine pairings and cocktails made by veterans from Multnomah Whiskey Library.
Though it will likely be softly open for much of the preceding week, the grand opening of Hem 23 will be Friday, January 26 in the former Sushiland location at 1514 NW 23rd Avenue, a couple doors down from longtime neighborhood Vietnamese spot Lela's Bistro.
Saigon-born owner Tuan Lam would apparently like you to show up to Hem 23 early. The first customer to arrive after their 11 am opening will get a $100 gift certificate, the next five get $50 certificates, and the next 25 customers after that will get $25 certificates. For dinner guests, the restaurant plans a raffle at 6 pm with prizes yet to be announced.
Lam, who came to Portland at the age of 13, is the founder of a Portland-area chain of casual Vietnamese eateries called La Sen. But he promises an entirely different experience at Hem 23.
The food menu will offer lesser-seen specialties like ech xao lan chili-lemongrass frog legs and a cua lot soft-shell crab plate—plus wide-ranging noodle soups from familiar beef and chicken pho to regional soups like turmeric-heavy mi quang, bun do bein seafood noodle soup with mussels and a mi wonton dumpling soup with egg noodles and fried onion. A specialty at the restaurant will be its bo la chanh beef skewers.
Hem means "alley" in Vietnamese, and the restaurant will be themed loosely after a Vietnamese back alley. Lam took his design team on a whirlwind tour of 20 different cities throughout Vietnam, and the walls will include details like the spiderweb of power cables that you might find hooked up to lights and carts.
"Alleys are significant in Vietnam because they each encompass their own culture, vibe and tight knit social networks," writes Lam in a press release.
"Many people live, work and play in their designated alleyways for their entire lives. In Vietnam no two alleyways are ever the same—they carry their own vibe and culture, each unique."
Lam says he'll be attempting to mix elements of the Vietnamese back-alley with the Portland atmosphere he also grew up with.
Hem will join other Portland Vietnamese spots like Luc Lac and Short Round in having a focus on drinks, with wine pairings from wine director Brendon Johnson. Multnomah Whiskey Library veteran Jeanette Connor will be the bar manager, with the starting menu of cocktails created by fellow Whiskey Library veteran (and Aquavit Week founder) Jacob Grier, who recently designed the cocktail menu at Wayfinder brewery.
Anyway, here's a couple of the cocktails, with Grier's descriptions.
Lime Leaf Sour : Tanqueray gin, lime leaf, lime palm sugar
"One of my favorite dishes at our first preview dinner was the Bo La Chanh, a wonderfully aromatic beef skewer interspersed with lime leaves. To capture that fragrance in a cocktail, we blend the leaves directly into gin to make a simple, very fresh drink that complements the cuisine."
Menta Iced Coffee: Plantation O.F.T.D. rum, Branca Menta, Vietnamese iced coffee, condensed milk, Angostura whipped cream
"I knew right away that I wanted to make a cocktail featuring Hem 23's strong Vietnamese coffee. Minty, bittersweet Branca Menta and potent Plantation O.F.T.D. rum (138-proof) pair with the dark notes of the coffee, all topped with a bit of winter spice notes in the Angostura bitters whipped cream."